Washington journalist Linda Killian is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her most recent book is The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents.
Q: In your book The Swing Vote, you look at four different groups of independent voters. Can you describe each of these, and summarize what role they ended up playing in the 2012 election?
A: There are four demographic groups of swing voters I identify in The Swing Vote and all of them were important in the 2012 election.
The first group I call the NPR Republicans – they have previously been known as Rockefeller Republicans but I thought it was time for a new term for fiscally conservative but socially moderate/tolerant Republicans. Because of the rightward move of the Republican Party and the influence of the religious right on the party including things like a party platform that would outlaw abortions in all cases including rape, incest and to protect the health of the mother, many of these NPR Republicans no longer feel welcome in the party and many have become independents.
There are a lot of NPR Republicans in New England but they do exist all over the country. Even though they are disappearing among GOP office holders, there are plenty of voters who are NPR Republicans. In 2008 many of these NPR Republicans voted for Barack Obama. Mitt Romney was a candidate tailor-made for these voters, despite his gyrations in the primaries in an attempt to appeal to the conservative wing of the party including the declaration that he was “severely conservative”.
These voters do not turn out in party primaries in the same proportion as the right wing and Tea Party voters and so a number of the candidates who were nominated – such as Richard Mourdock in Indiana over the more moderate and bipartisan Richard Lugar - went down to defeat in the general election.
Of all of the four groups I talk about in the book the NPR Republicans probably had the smallest impact on this election. However, after the Republican Senate defeats in states like Missouri and Indiana as well as the 2010 defeat in Delaware, a number of GOP activists are talking about the need to solve their “primary problem” and nominate people who can win statewide and appeal to Independent, centrist voters and not just a narrow, conservative constituency.
The second group I talk about are the “America First Democrats” who we have known traditionally as Reagan Democrats. These are socially more conservative, largely white, working and middle class males. These voters were not with Barack Obama in 2008 and while it’s true that nationally Obama did not carry white male voters, the America First Democrats were incredibly important in Ohio.
The Republican anti-union effort in 2011 after the GOP took over the state legislature and governorship, which was decisively repealed through a ballot measure, really activated these voters. I don’t think the national media totally got this – although there was a lot of attention paid to the auto bailout, which was also important in winning support from this group. The Obama campaign’s coalition in Ohio included minority voters and young people but the America First Democrats also helped him carry the state.
Young voters, who I call the Facebook Generation, are an interesting swing group even though a lot of people write them off either as not voting or voting largely Democratic as a bloc. Both things are increasingly untrue. The participation level of voters under 30 has increased in each of the last three presidential elections. In 2004 it was 17 percent of the electorate, in 2008 it was 18 percent and this year it was 19 percent. That is a larger percentage of voters than those over 65, which is also something I think most of the media has missed. That means this group of voters actually should have a lot of clout and they need to make their voices heard.
Also, while Barack Obama decisively carried this group, Mitt Romney actually got six points more from voters under 30 than did John McCain. What I heard from the young voters I interviewed is that they are socially libertarian but are open to a more fiscally conservative message, which is why Ron Paul was such a rock star on college campuses. These young people are concerned about finding a job – remember the first question from a college student at the debate for undecided voters?
The final group is the Starbucks Moms and Dads – suburban voters who really decide elections. More attention was paid in the media to the mom component of this group. More than 50 percent of all Americans live in suburbs and exurbs and these voters were incredibly important in all the key swing states, especially Colorado, Ohio and Virginia.
Q: Do you think independent voters will take on even more importance in future elections, or will their numbers end up declining?
The number of registered voters who call themselves Independents – some states call them undeclared or unaffiliated – now stands at 40 percent nationally. That’s the highest percentage since Gallup started keeping track 75 years ago and that is more voters than in either the Republican or Democratic parties. A lot of academics and pundits like to write off these voters as people who consistently lean toward one party or another or who don’t pay attention.
But that is not at all what I found in interviewing them. These voters do care, but both parties have turned them off with their refusal to compromise and by creating government dysfunction. This group will be closely watching what happens in the lame-duck session of Congress and whether the two parties can work together on deficit reduction and other important issues facing the nation.
Q: You looked at four particular swing states in your book: Colorado, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia. Why did you pick those four, and what makes each of these especially interesting?
A: I spent a long time thinking about the four states I wanted to focus on in The Swing Vote. I wanted states from different regions of the country which illustrated the demographic changes talking place in the nation and which I could match with one of my four demographic groups. Obviously I thought about Florida but that state is so huge and unique that I decided not to include it.
New Hampshire used to be a very Republican state but it has been voting more Democratic in the past two decades as more people move here from Massachusetts. There are a lot of NPR Republicans in the Granite State and of course Mitt Romney has a home here. He kicked off his presidential campaign at the farm of a politically active, moderate Republican couple named the Scammans that I talk about in The Swing Vote.
He undoubtedly thought he could win New Hampshire but there was a Democratic wave here in 2012. Not only did the Democrats hold the governorship and pick up seats in the state legislature, they also won back both of the state’s congressional seats. New Hampshire also made history in being the first state in the country to elect women to fill all of its congressional and Senate seats as well as the governorship.
Virginia also used to be a reliably Republican state when it came to presidential elections. Barack Obama was the first Democrat to carry it since Lyndon Johnson. But the changes taking place in the northern Virginia suburbs, much more diverse than they used to be, are happening all over the country. It also has a history of electing moderate, pro-business politicians who can work in a bipartisan way. Mark Warner, who was governor before he was elected to the Senate, is an example of this, like Tim Kaine, just elected to join him in the Senate. Kaine talked a lot in his campaign about working in a bipartisan way to get things done.
Colorado is an example of the changes happening in the West. There have been huge increases in the Hispanic populations in states like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Colorado. The national media talked a great deal about the margin by which Obama won the Hispanic vote and as the population grows and more Hispanics register and turn out to vote, this will be a really important voting bloc. Colorado is also a very young state and I interviewed a lot of interesting young people there who are looking for something they aren’t really getting from either political party. Hispanics, young voters and suburban voters were all key to Obama’s win here.
Ohio - It seems pretty obvious that it would be a huge mistake to do a book about swing voters and not include Ohio. It is incredibly important not only because no Republican has ever won the presidency without it but also because it is such a microcosm of urban, rural and suburban America.
Q: Your first book, The Freshmen, looked at the large class of Republican House members elected in 1994. What is the legacy of this group, and how do they compare to the Tea Party-backed freshmen elected in 2010?
A: The House Class of ’94 was special because it gave the Republicans the majority for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. It reflected a big political sea change. Like the Tea Party freshmen of 2010, the Class of ’94 believed their mandate was to cut federal spending and reduce the deficit. But they were not elected in the middle of a terrible recession. It was a less serious time for the nation and the Class of ’94 was full of interesting, larger-than-life characters and of course they brought Newt Gingrich the House speakership. Neither group wanted to compromise and exerted pressure on their leaders not to do so.
It’s hard to point to a lasting legacy for the Class of ’94. Most of the spending reductions and balanced budget the 104th Congress achieved were reversed by later Republican congresses. There are a number of national leaders who were a part of the Class of ’94, including Sens. Tom Coburn, Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss. There were also a number of infamous members of the class, including Mark Foley. Mark Sanford and Bob Ney.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m not really sure what my next project will be. I currently write mostly for The Atlantic and Politico. You can see all of my work on my website – www.lindajkillian.com.
It would also be great if you would follow me on Twitter @lindajkillian.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this and for your interest.
Interview with Deborah Kalb.